Strutting Gobbler Elbows into Father, Daughter Hunt
Sensing excitement in the elbow-shot to my ribs, I leaned closer to my daughter Leah to better hear her whispers.
“They’re moving our way!” she hissed.
That was her polite way of ordering me to quit calling, stash my wingbone call and let our turkey decoys take over.
A gobbler was approaching.
At least that’s how I interpreted Leah’s words. Minutes earlier she matter-of-factly whispered that she saw a hen in the field behind us, but not the tom that we heard gobbling. I sensed no urgency in that initial report. The gobbling had sounded distant, or at least too far to trigger heavy breathing, racing hearts and flying elbows.
I liked how things were trending.
I nodded and stared past her shoulder, doing my best to scan the tilled field beyond our ambush site. The task wasn’t easy. About 10 yards of greening raspberry bushes and black-cherry saplings screened our view, save for tiny peepholes that opened and closed in the chilly wind.
I glanced at Leah for clues. Her intensity told me she was watching something more exciting than a hen scratching up breakfast. We’d already seen two of those earlier in the morning, one far and one near, but neither had justified a rib jab.
Minutes passed and, sure enough, a dark-brown fan with auburn tips unfolded wide and tall 150 yards away. It then turned away, showing us the long, dull-white vertical spines of its backside tailfeathers. Though I couldn’t see the hen, or possibly hens, I knew they had to be nearby. I doubted the gobbler was puffing its breast and fanning its 18 full-length tailfeathers for its own amusement.
Then I lost sight of the bird. My hopes waned as the minutes passed. Then Leah readjusted her position and slid her shotgun atop one knee. My hopes surged. She must like something she’s seeing. I glimpsed a hen approaching from our flank, and assumed it had the gobbler in tow.
Another minute passed, and Leah’s left hand slid forward to her shotgun’s safety and silently pushed it into the “Fire” position. She then slowly raised the hand to her right eye and subtly flipped down the blacked-out lens of her shooting glasses.
Like many female shooters, Leah is right-handed but left-eye dominant. But unlike most people, she can’t keep her right eye closed when lining up her sights. When she was about 10, I solved that problem with a pair of flip-down shooting glasses, removing the left lens and painting the right lens black. By flipping down the blackened lens, she allows her left eye to align her sights.
I followed her gaze when she turned to peer over her left shoulder. My heart leaped. There he was, the gobbler, beyond shotgun range but strutting closer with his red waddles, white scalp and baby-blue face. Seconds later his girlfriend walked into range along the field’s edge, but still behind Leah’s left shoulder.
Onward they marched, the hen out front and the gobbler strutting behind, its head tucked tightly atop its breast. But as the hen walked into harm’s way, it slowed, stopped and looked around, possibly not trusting our statue-like decoys 20 yards ahead. The gobbler ignored his stalled companion and advanced to our decoys, spitting, drumming and telling the world he was the woodlot’s most dangerous bird.
The hen’s skepticism seemed to worsen, but she simply clucked, yelped, stutter-stepped and glanced around like an indecisive shopper at a deli counter. The gobbler, meanwhile, pirouetted around our “nesting hen” decoy while trying to intimidate our fake jake, which mimics a 1-year-old male turkey.
Front-row seats for such shows don’t happen daily, of course. When Leah and I hunted the same Chippewa County property last spring we heard only one gobble and never saw a turkey during her three-day stay. Still, we made plans to try again this year during the May 17-23 season, and she bought a left-over tag when they went on sale in March.
This wasn’t all new to her, either. Leah started hunting turkeys at age 12 in 1997, and shot her first bird, a jake, a year later. She got her first gobbler as a high school sophomore, and then her second gobbler four years later after her sophomore year in college. Though she hunted hard in May 2006 and 2007, she didn’t get another shot. Then she spent the next 14 years in the Navy, and never made it home in spring.
Now that she’s raising a family and working full-time in Rochester, Minnesota, she’s back in the woods; at least when she can arrange time off and baby-sitters. She still has her 12-gauge, camo clothes, turkey vest and determination, so we arose at 3:30 a.m. on May 19 to start her next hunt.
Ninety minutes later we set our decoys into a freshly planted cornfield and nestled into the field-edge brush to hide. The first hour passed quietly, with only robins, crows, towhees, bluejays, killdeer, Indigo buntings, Canada geese, sandhill cranes and rose-breasted grosbeaks calling from the woods and skies.
Finally, a hen turkey walked into sight across the huge field, but showed no interest in our decoys or my calls. About 6:30 a.m. another hen fed through from our right, calling steadily as if saying hello to our phony turkeys.
The hen eventually quit being neighborly, and walked off the way it had come. Then it reconsidered, and returned for a second look before leaving for good.
“You hear that?” Leak asked about 7 a.m.
Our first gobble. I pulled out the wingbone call, yelped a few times, and then stroked a few purrs and clucks on my aluminum-face pot call. I called again minutes later, earning Leah’s shot to the ribs.
And then it was suddenly 7:15 a.m., and the gobbler was strutting through our decoys. I glanced back and forth, watching the shotgun’s front bead follow the gobbler while waiting for the bird to raise its head for a clear shot.
Leah didn’t need any coaching, and I dared not offer any, fearing I’d alarm the turkeys. Finally, the big head lifted, the shotgun boomed, and the gobbler folded and flopped its last.
I’ve been beside Leah each time she’s shot a turkey this past quarter-century, and the thrill never wanes. With luck, we’ll share several more hunts in the years ahead.
Leah (Durkin) McCoy carries out the gobbler she shot May 19 in Chippewa County.
— Patrick Durkin photo